Interview with Josh Keyes

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Thinkspace Editions is releasing a brand new limited fine art print from Josh Keyes of his iconic ‘Goliath’ painting this Friday. In anticipation for the release of the print, we interviewed Keyes to find out his thoughts on the New Contemporary Art Movement and how he’s grown as an artist.

SH: You’ve been a part of the New Contemporary Art movement for over 16 years, graduating from school into an art environment hungry for your voice – how have you grown over the years and what are your feelings on the growth of the movement?
JK: I was fortunate and am eternally grateful to Hi-Fructose, Juxtapoz, Fecal Face Dot Com, and many art blogs out there for featuring my work at a time when there were very few venues for exposure. Back then I was still sending off slides and resumes to galleries and receiving lots of rejection letters. Times have changed dramatically and in favor of any emerging passionate artist out there. I guess I sort of fell into the lowbrow pop surrealist movement by chance.

I was a few years out of grad school and questioning everything, my work, and trying to digest my experience at Yale and find a way to break free from that tradition and find my voice. I think the kinship I found among this emerging movement was the fusion of lowbrow or pop surrealist and kitsch subject matter, realist and hyper-realist techniques, combined with a sincere expression of personal mythology, political, and environmental issues. I guess I would describe it as the emergence of personal folk or folklore. Jeremy Fish is one of the prime examples of this beautiful funky fusion.

Josh Keyes II

In my own work it began as a formal stylistic dialogue with what I felt was the conceptual vibe at Yale. An emphasis on formalism, and post-minimalist approaches to painting. The diagrammatic format I used spoke to the dry cerebral conceptual method, and I began to integrate and element of absurdity. The end result was an image that looked very rational and scientific, as if taken from a science text book, but on closer inspection, it becomes very surreal and odd. Working in this way kept my imagination going for a long time. It became an efficient pictorial device, allowing me to explore many important topics both personal and world related. At some point I wanted to create a more immersive world to expand and explore these ideas. I see many artist in this movement walking a similar path.

Each has a kind of signature style but it has changed and with some all but disappeared. Transforming into something new, the vibe is still there just new instruments, and maybe the voice has a wider range, life does that to you. The new generation of artists and work is diverse, vibrant and incredible, not only the level of skill, but the ideas and concepts have an immediate emotional appeal. Its almost like this new generation of artists is sitting around a campfire and telling stories.

The artwork from my generation of the movement had an evident reactionary vibe, the new wave has less reaction to an established aesthetic, its voice is not so much a carving of the way but a growing and harvesting of story, narrative, and a dance and celebration of personal imagery and fine-tuned technical craft.  There are sort of tribes out there, artists who work with animal imagery, bones, butterflies, realism, you name it no artist should feel isolated, someone out there is doing something like you and someone out there wants to see what you are making.

These folks are also very well versed in online self-promotion and networking. With the rise of social networking, some speculated on the death of the gallery system. I think in some ways the gallery is more important. These tribes of like-minded artist need a village where people can come and celebrate the unique voice and vision of that tribe and way of seeing the world. But, this is also the perfect time for the lone wolf artist, you have the power to self-promote and connect directly with your collectors. Both models are alive and valid. Something to be said for a wild party.

Josh Keyes

SH: What is your creative process? Has it changed now you are a father and a husband?
JK: Time is the main factor in deciding what gets done and how many paintings I can paint this year. Example, my daughter had a bad fever tonight, and I had planned on finishing this interview earlier and to work on a new painting. You never know what’s coming or when, never a dull moment. I suppose my work has become more introspective, almost meditative. I used to be consumed with the dark end of the environmental crisis, now there is a glimmer of hope and nostalgia, still no people around so I suppose it’s gloomy from a certain point of view. If you spend time with a baby you begin to see the world through their eyes, everything brand new, it’s a tremendous feeling and is kind of a reset button on all those things you thought you knew. It opens your senses and sharpens your perception of the world. It’s the closest thing to the source of the universe and magic. Definitely affecting the work I’m making.

SH: What does a day in the studio look like?
JK: The day in the studio does not start until 11pm and stretches till 6am. My wife and I both work from home so most of the day is spent with our toddler. It has been a challenge keeping up with deadlines and emails.

Josh Keyes Burning Car

SH: How do you deal with self-doubt or creative blocks?
JK: I don’t know about creative block, often I have too many ideas and often for very different work. In another life I was a performance artist, I do all kind of things, for me painting stuck. Self-doubt, that’s a constant for many creative types. I began questioning my approach to my work and style about six years ago. I felt I had explored a way of seeing from many different angles, I was itching to try something else, and actually, I think my work was restless and wanted to be free of the white space and cubic confinement. I think having a successful thread of work and shows was also weighing on my decision. I could continue making work that folks seemed to like and sold well, but was no longer resonating with the direction of my ideas. Or I could take a risk on my career, everything and try something new. It was difficult at first, and I got loads of criticism from tons of people, even very hateful emails. But you know, art is like life it’s got to have a chance to change and grow, otherwise, it gets stagnate, and both you and it loses its soul. So little word of advice to emerging artists, you will have one or a number of one hit wonders and as tempting it is to repeat them, go with your gut and stay true to your vision, you may be alone for a while but you will find others who share your voice and vision. Don’t ever be afraid to allow change and evolution into your work and style.

SH: You’ve compared the different phases of your work to that of exhibits in a dystopian museum, the specimens, and the diorama. In your earlier work with the white backgrounds and a dissected scene, it shows a lot of restraint as an artist, how did you come to develop that style and trust yourself to let it exist in its detailed minimalism?
JK: The diagrammatic format was a symptom of Yale. It was the last skin to shed. I really love minimalist art, and music, and was fortunate to have studied under Mel Bochner, he is considered to be the father of conceptual art in the US. He was also one of the most biting and severe critics at Yale. He thought most narrative painting should be in children’s books and that a painting without ideas is dead. It was rumored that during a final critique he told a student who was in tears, “I’d be crying too if this was my painting”. It was a tough program, and everyone there was broken down in some way, most emerged from the ashes a little scared but with incredible work. For me storytelling, narrative, mythological themes, these were and still are my primary interest. I think the conceptual atmosphere quarantined my personal expression into a Hirstien model of clinical surrealist anxiety. I think the style has been so much fun to explore and glad so many other artists have expanded on the style.

Josh Keyes

SH: Some artists develop deep emotional connections to each piece while others create a work and let it go; what is your emotional state from creating to showing?
JK: It may sound corny but I kind of go into a trance when I begin thinking work for a show. I have a set playlist and immerse myself in imagery, photos, novels that relate to the general theme. It kind of a personal walkabout but in your imagination. I close my eyes and see where my imagination takes me. Sometimes familiar themes or animals pop up and mini-narratives or epic situations emerge. I jot these down in a sketchbook as they come to me. Often a place will stimulate an idea, the warm light at dusk illuminating a car or tree, a stop sign with an odd graffiti tag. I’m always a little sad to see painting go, happy they do and know they are going to someone who the image resonates with. Sometimes it’s good to live with your work for a while, you have a chance to critique it or change it if need be. I suppose in the end making is cathartic, and I want to make more so though it is hard to see them too, I know they have many more siblings and offspring waiting to hatch on the easel.

SH: What inspires you and excites your creativity?
JK: My daughter and the world she shares with me is where it’s at. I think on the level of my personal mythology and imagery, I am interested in spaces that are overgrown, traces of a system or way of being that is no longer sustainable or healthy. The animals in my work speak more strongly to an emotional state or presence. In earlier work there was a lot of subtext, this means this and that means that. Nothing wrong with that way of working but it does limit the poetic vitality and reach of the imagery. I was creating work fueled with literary and satirical punchlines. I suppose I’m trying my best to paint some poetry, sometimes they end up looking like post-apocalyptic Kinkade.

Josh Keyes

SH: You received your masters from Yale and BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and like global warming the college system looks like a bleak landscape for those leaving high school and searching for higher education. As a highly educated artist, what would you say to artists considering your path? Can you break it down into a pros and cons list?
JK: Well I had my best years of education at SAIC, the teachers and students blew my mind. At Yale I learned how to cry in pillow at night. Thanks to the internet, you can learn just about any skill, technique, you name it. Artists can also build and manage their own art business. If you have a unique product that people want and you can get to them, you can achieve good deal of success. Art school can help you to find your voice, and perfect your skill, and also help you network with students and faculty that have relationships to galleries and museums. In other words, school will help to give you a sophisticated edge if you are climbing up a certain career ladder. You also learn about yourself, and where your vision and voice stands in relation to art history. Art school is expensive. I spent years paying off $30,000 in student loans. There is also no guarantee you will become an art star when you graduate.

After I graduated from Yale, I looked around for teaching jobs and found nothing. I ended up working at Utrecht and Dick Blick art supplies for seven years after graduation. That was actually an amazing way to learn about what it’s like to be an artist. I met many famous artists and also you learn a ton about art materials. I made work all that time even though I was not showing at a gallery, I treated my work like a second job, and painted nearly every day. I got lucky when someone posted my work to an art blog back in 2001, and opportunities and interest took off from there. You don’t need to go to art school, but if you want to teach art, most schools and universities require at least a BFA. Also, if you get stuck, you have been working on a style or theme and just don’t know how to improve the technique or would like more depth of content and subject matter, a class at a community college, workshop or full-time art school can help to inspire you. I think there is an invisible “thou shalt” or “thou must” in a lot of life, just taking a moment to do an internal inventory and see what is right for you, not what anyone else tells you, go with that, your gut is always right.

Josh Keyes Rino

SH: If your personality was depicted in pizza toppings, what would that pizza be made of?
JK: Ah pizza, thanks now I want some, what’s open at 3am. I’m not sure, my pizza is upside down, its challenging to balance it.

SH: If your art was an ice cream flavor, what would it be made of?
JK: It used to be a sorbet with maybe something salty at the center, polite but snarky. My recent work feels like a Ben and Jerry’s everything and then rolled through some moss.

SH: What is your favorite time of day?
JK: When the sun is going down and everything is illuminated with that warm orange light. I call it the Edward Hopper hour. If you know his paintings you know what I mean. It’s that incredible glow that feels like it came from a Mark Twain novel, if I’m driving somewhere, I have to pull over and just be with it.

Born Free Josh Keyes

A portion of the proceeds of the print will be going to Born Free USA a non-profit to help save the world’s animal population.

About Born Free USA:
Born Free USA is a national animal advocacy nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, contributions to which are tax-deductible. Our mission is to end the suffering of wild animals in captivity, rescue individual animals in need, protect wildlife — including highly endangered species — in their natural habitats, and encourage compassionate conservation globally.

Every year, millions of animals suffer in fur farms and circus cages. In our campaigns against such cruelties, we use powerful tools including legislation, public education, litigation, and grassroots networking. We also work actively with media to spread the word about challenges facing animals.

Our primary campaign areas currently include animals used in entertainment, captive exotic animals, trapping & fur, and the international wildlife trade.

Josh Keyes Bear and Buck